How a Kenyan entrepreneur’s love for design led to the first of many successful businesses
Huston Malande initially had to use his father’s hand-me-down laptop, training himself to code and then commercialising his lingering interest in design and technology.
During a gap year after finishing high school in Kenya, Malande dug in to learn how to create websites that would stand out on a global platform. His passion led him to launch a reputable design company that now employs a number of young designers under the brand Skyline Design, headquartered in Nairobi, as they create exceptional digital experiences on the internet.
Take us back to the beginning?
“I finished high school in 2007, but had a gap year before joining university in 2009. It is in that time that I learnt programming and I had to register it as a business since I already had paying clients,” Malande says.
He taught himself on his father’s laptop, working out of cybercafés. His stint as a student at a small-scale college opened his eyes beyond the curriculum, and he vowed to learn how to make websites as good as the ones from Europe and the United States.
Even as his business took off, he still enrolled in university and graduated with a bachelor’s in computer science in 2015.
“We should build better things and to do that we should understand the underlying technology, so I pushed myself to know how things work,” Malande says.
“I have this ability to do both tech and design, which is rare, and this helped me get clients and referrals,” he says, skills that eventually grew into a formidable business. He officially registered the business in 2008, which became incorporated into a limited company in 2012.
His holding company has several subsidiaries, including: Digital Legion, a medium-budget web design company; Martian Effects, an animation firm; Mobile Matrix, a mobile app development company; Rolling Lens, a video production house; and Red Planet, a PR company.
How did he grow the company into the business it is today?
“My first client was a family friend who owned a training college. They needed a website to publicise their courses and to put course materials out. So I started making money from the very first day. From then on the business grew by referrals,” Malande recounts.
“Since the beginning, I never liked to be in the position of begging someone that they need me or the service,” he explains his marketing strategy. He opted to have his work do the marketing for him. The visibility of web design pushed his business forward and grew.
In 2010, Malande wrote a blog piece titled “Top 25 web designs in Kenya” and the piece drove traffic to his site and also contributed to the growing business. “Between fifty and seventy five percent of new businesses were coming out of that content,” he says.
By writing about his craft, he got more clients who believed he knew what he was doing, giving an anchor to his business.
Surely it couldn’t have been that easy. He must have faced some challenges?
Initial major challenges, according to Malande, were efficiency and burnout. In the early days he was doing everything in the business: finance, design, business development.
“There are those days you can’t work, you either fall sick or have a family engagement. If you have a waterfall model of a project plan and the client is expecting the project on a certain day, and the project is dependent on the design, when you can’t work on the design it spirals out of control,” he explains.
He then met his two co-founders who were specialists in different areas of the business and this gave the business the free-flow that it deserved. Members of the team can cover for each other with their different skills.
He started to delegate more to team members. “Rather than grinding in the business, I should be minding the business,” he says.
Not knowing your target market can also lead to disorientation in the business, he recalls.
“Initially we were going for the top of the pyramid clients. We do websites that take roughly two months to develop and on average cost US$10,000 to US$20,000. We used to turn away smaller jobs of $1,000 that we could not dedicate our time to,” Malande says.
He then thought they could capture and capitalise on the smaller jobs, so the company started a subsidiary to serve the smaller clients. This was in collaboration with university students studying computer science. This didn’t work since getting competent graduates was a challenge, and as Malande learnt, those who pay the least demand the most.
They had to pivot that part of the business, which is now sustainable, with a starting price of $1,000 minimum for every job.
Anything we can learn from his experiences?
“Know your craft. You have to be good at what you do. You can only fake it to a certain point,” Malande says.
“The service industry is growing and you need to know where you are playing. You either go for high value work or you go for moderate quality and you compensate for it on volume. Know the target market you are going after,” he advises.
On the quote: “When asked you to do something, say yes then find a way to do it”, Malande holds the opinion that you need to know your long-term goals so that you do not say yes to many things that are not leading you to where you want to go.
“Keep your word. Don’t say yes and then go back and say no,” he adds. “Figure it out, learn it and if you can’t, quickly bring somebody on board who can do this.”